Saturday, 28 February 2015

Mini Lemon & Pistachio Bundt Cakes

Have I ever mentioned how much I love the flavour of lemons?!!! Hmmm… I may have done so once or twice! It is a well-established fact with readers of my blog posts that I am totally and absolutely head-over-heels in love with lemons. Cakes, puddings, desserts, biscuits, sweets, savoury dishes… if it’s got lemon in it, I am pre-destined to love it! I’ve said this many times before, but whilst some people may be chocoholics, I’m a lemon lover all the way! The funny thing is that two of my favourite desserts of all time are Lemon Surprise Pudding (AKA Lemon Delicious) and Lemon Meringue Pie, but I have not yet posted my recipes for either of these dishes to date. This is a situation that I am determined to rectify over the coming weeks.
The great thing about lemon as a flavour is that it can be paired really successfully with so many other ingredients and flavours. One of my favourite taste combos at the moment is lemon and ginger. The zingy freshness and acidity of lemon just works so well with the fragrant, spicy warmth of ginger and together they create something that enlivens and excites even the most jaded palate. Another pairing that I am currently very enamoured with is lemon and pistachio. There is nothing new about this flavour combination and these two ingredients are often seen together especially in Middle Eastern inspired recipes.
Here I have used them together to make mini-bundt cakes, but if you don’t have mini-bundt cake tins, you can bake these in muffin or cupcake tins. The sponge is flavoured with lemon zest and is studded with pistachios roughly chopped into small pieces. Each cake is then enrobed with an intensely flavoured lemon glacé icing and some freshly chopped pistachios. The pistachios have an earthy sweetness that compliments the acidity of the lemons beautifully so that each flavour is wonderfully highlighted.
This mixture makes 6-8 small bundt cakes around the size of a large cupcake.


To prepare tins:
25g butter, melted
25g plain flour
175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
175g plain flour
75g self-raising flour
50ml milk
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
75g pistachios, roughly chopped into small pieces
150g icing sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
30g pistachios, roughly chopped into small pieces


1. Preheat oven to 180c/Fan Oven 160C/gas Mark 4. Brush the inside of your mini-bundt tins with some melted butter using a pastry brush. Dust the inside of each buttered tin with some of the plain flour and shake out any excess. Set aside.
2. Place the butter and sugar into a large mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, beat together until light and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition.
3. Sift the plain and self-raising flour together and fold into the creamed mixture along with the milk. Once everything is mixed together, add the lemon zest and chopped pistachios and mix through evenly.
4. Divide the mixture evenly between the prepared mini-bundt tins, filling each one 2/3 full with the batter. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 18-22 minutes until well risen and golden brown, or until a thin skewer inserted into one comes out clean.
5. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely.
To finish:
6. Mix the icing sugar and lemon juice together to create a slightly runny glacé icing. Drizzle the icing over the cooled bundt cakes. Sprinkle with the chopped pistachios before the icing sets.
Makes 6-8 mini-bundt cakes.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Apple Shortcake Squares

I was recently looking back through my blog posts and noticed that to date I have included relatively few recipes that use apples. I was actually quite surprised because they are easily obtained, are hugely popular and I love them.
One of the most popular desserts in any Irish household is apple pie. In fact, most restaurant menus in this country always have an apple pie, tart or crumble of some type on it! To be honest, no matter how accomplished a baker you are, if you can’t produce a noteworthy apple tart, you might as well give up! In Ireland your baking reputation stands or fails on the quality of the apple pie you can produce. When making my apple pie, I like to use two or three varieties of apple; Bramleys, because they break down to a purée-like consistency when cooked, Granny Smiths because  they retain their shape and provide texture and I also sometimes use Pink Lady or Braeburn for their distinctive apple taste.  I have always preferred using a pinch of ground cloves rather than ground cinnamon in my apple pies, but each to their own. I know some bakers who like to use ground ginger, but for me, the judicious use of ground cloves (only a pinch is required) really bring out the flavour of the apples.
So many people, even in suburban areas have their own apple trees and this can be a wonderful source of freshly picked fruit later on in the year. I have a number of apple trees growing in my garden, which have been planted for six or seven years at this stage and provide me with some wonderful fruit at the end of the summer. It is a source of great annoyance to me that my children love to go out into the garden after a windy night and use the fallen fruit as makeshift sliotars when practising their hurling and camogie! Windfall apples, provided they haven’t been lying on the ground too long, can still be used for making chutneys or in baking… so you can imagine my irritation at seeing the apples being hurled down the garden at force rather than for being used to make tasty treats!
The recipe that I’m giving here is my version of the Apple Shortcake Squares which are on sale in many Irish bakeries. At their simplest these are made with apples sandwiched between two layers of pastry and dredged with caster sugar. My version uses self-raising rather than plain flour which creates a pastry with a more shortcake-like consistency but without being spongy like a cake. The pastry dough is on the soft side so I don’t roll out the base but rather press it gently into the tin with the tips of my fingers to create an even layer. For the top I flour some non-stick baking parchment and place the pastry on this, flattening it out slightly with my hands. I then flour the slightly flattened pastry and place another layer of non-stick baking parchment on top. I then proceed to roll out the pastry into a thin layer, large enough to cover the top of the Apple Squares. This is such a handy way of rolling out any pastry, but particularly this one which is very soft and a little difficult to manage.
Finally, I should mention that I recommend using Granny Smith apples for making these squares. I find that cooking apples are too mealy and break down too much, but that the Granny Smiths retain some texture. Also unlike ‘normal’ pastry which should be given a chance to rest, you can roll out and use this pastry once you have made it.


Apple filling:
5-6 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes
25g caster sugar
25ml water
240g self-raising flour
125g butter, cubed
15g icing sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
30ml cold water
To finish:
25g caster sugar for dredging


Apple filling:
1. Place the apples, sugar and water into a medium sized saucepan over a moderate heat. Bring up to simmering point and allow to cook for 8-20 minutes until the apples have softened but not broken down. Remove from the heat, set aside and allow to cool completely.
2. Preheat oven to 180C/Fan oven 160C/Gas Mark 4. Line a 30cmx20cm traybake tin with non-stick baking parchment and set aside.
3. Place the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the cubed butter. Rub the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the egg and water and mix together using a fork until everything comes together.
4. Divide the dough in half. Press one half of the dough into the bottom of the prepared tin, flattening it out with your fingers or the back of a spoon to create a level surface. Spoon the COOLED apple mixture onto the pastry into the tin, spreading it out evenly.
5. Roll out the other half of the dough between two sheets of floured non-stick baking parchment into a rectangle the same size as the tin (30cm x 20cm). Remove the top sheet of baking parchment and lifting the rolled out pastry on the other layer of baking parchment flip it over to cover the apple filling. Tuck in the edges of the pastry making sure that the apple is covered.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30minutes until light golden brown. Remove from the oven and dredge with the caster sugar. Set aside to cool before cutting into 12 even squares.

Makes 12 squares.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Condensed Milk Loaf Cake

Whilst I love the frivolity and decadence of layer cakes, there is something that I find so reassuring and sensible about loaf cakes. For some reason, I never feel particularly guilty having one slice too many from a loaf cake, but even one slice of a layer cake always makes me feel as if I am doing something a little naughty! If I’m being completely honest, I find it hard to resist cakes of any description whether they be layer cakes, loaf cakes or small little dainty cakes. I just love cake.
Layer cakes are beautiful, look stunning and are perfect for special celebrations, but they’re not really the type of cake that I hanker for when I want something comforting to nibble on with my cup of tea. Layer cakes with their fillings of cream/jam/fruit/chocolate etc. invariably need to be eaten with a pastry fork or other implement, where as you can usually eat a slice of a loaf cake using your hands.  Even when iced with simple glacé or buttercream icings, there is nothing pretentious about them. It is therefore unsurprising that I love to try out new loaf cake recipes when I come across them.
I always seem to have tins of condensed milk in the kitchen cupboard, mainly because it’s a key ingredient when making Millionaire's Shortbread, which I regularly do for cake sales, coffee mornings and the like. I also use it to make the toffee filling for Banoffee Pie, which is such a hugely popular and incredibly easy dessert to make (I will post my take on Banoffee soon). I was recently carrying out research on different cakes from around the world and was fascinated by the fact that condensed milk regularly appears in cakes from South America and parts of Asia. I tried out a few different recipes for cakes containing condensed milk, and after making a few changes, this is the one that I finally settled on.
This is a lovely cake. From the outside it looks very plain and a bit unexciting, but when you take a bite the milky sweetness of the condensed milk really comes through. Despite the addition of the condensed milk, the cake is not too sweet and has a lovely close texture without being heavy. It really is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea or strong black coffee.
The great thing about a cake like this is that you can serve it on its own or with some soft fruit and a dollop of cream as a dessert. Happy days! Because of the inclusion of condensed milk which acts as a humectant, this cake keeps wonderfully fresh for a number of days, but it is fairly addictive, so I doubt it’ll last that long.


225g butter, softened
100g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
240g condensed milk
1tsp vanilla extract
200g self-raising flour, sieved


1. Preheat oven to 160C/Fan Oven 140C/Gas Mark 3. Grease and line a 900g loaf tin with non-stick baking parchment and set aside.
2. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat together using a hand-held electric mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten eggs, mixing well after each addition.
3. Add the condensed milk and vanilla extract mixing well until they are fully incorporated. Finally, fold in the sifted flour. Don’t over-mix, but equally make sure that there are no ‘pockets’ of flour remaining.
4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Bake in the preheated oven for 50-60 minutes or until well risen and a thin skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Serves 6-8.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Hot & Sour Prawn & Pineapple Soup

If you like spicy, fragrant food, this soup is just for you. It is incredibly quick to prepare, it looks wonderful and it tastes absolutely delicious.  I love the combination of prawns and pineapple with a background note of spicy heat supplied courtesy of the red chillies that have been included.  I have recommended using 3 or 4 red chillies, but you can use two if you’re not as keen on a bit of heat in your food.

Tamarind paste gives the sour element of this dish and whilst you will definitely notice its presence, it is not mouth-puckeringly sour in the way that biting on a slice of fresh lemon would be. I have been using tamarind paste a lot recently and love the depth of flavour it gives to those dishes in which it is used. I remember when I first became really interested in cookery and how difficult it used to be to source certain ingredients; I found it so frustrating! Thirty years ago you wouldn’t have had a hope of finding tamarind paste for sale in an Irish supermarket or shop and yet these days, ingredients like these can be found in many corner shops! For the enthusiastic and experimental cook, this is great.
As with all my recipes, I encourage you to put your own stamp on the dish… always taste as you go along and adjust seasoning, spicing etc. as necessary. I find it amazing that so many people cook without tasting! It is the most important step when cooking. I season using sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, but I also keep a lemon on hand as I find a squirt of fresh lemon juice can often enliven any dish without making it taste lemony… try it out… it really works!

This dish could be served as it is, almost like a substantial soup, but you could also serve it with rice as a light curry; it depends on how hungry you are feeling and what you are in the mood for. I like to serve it accompanied by flatbreads, which also serve as a vehicle to mop up all the yummy sauce!
To make this dish, you need to firstly create a paste base for the soup, but this is easy with the aid of a food processor. If you don’t have a food processor, you could chop the vegetables into small pieces and pound them along with the shrimp paste to blend everything together. The paste does not need to be absolutely smooth but everything does need to be well combined and broken down, particularly, the often fibrous fresh ginger and the lemongrass.
I think it is perhaps appropriate that I say a quick word about shrimp paste… this stuff looks seriously unappealing and when you spoon it out of its jar/container, it smells… well frankly… horrible! However, when mixed with the other ingredients and fried off in the pan, it is transformed and creates the most wonderfully complex base for the soup. So, don’t be put off by the shrimp paste in the beginning despite any initial reservations which you may have!


Paste base for the soup:
3-4 thin red chillies, chopped
4-5 shallots, chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, outer husk removed and chopped finely
25g fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1tsp shrimp paste
1tblsp vegetable oil
1tblsp vegetable oil
2tblsp tamarind paste
1tblsp palm sugar (or Demerara sugar)
1 litre of vegetable stock
400g raw prawns, peeled and deveined
150g fresh pineapple, cut into small chunks
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
To finish:
Some fine egg noodles, cooked
1 lime cut into wedges
Some very thinly sliced red chilli pepper
Fresh coriander leaves


Paste base:
1. Place all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse to create a paste. Alternatively pound the ingredients together using a pestle and mortar.
2. Heat the oil in a medium sized, heavy based saucepan over a moderate heat and add the paste base for the soup. Fry gently for 2-3 minutes until it deepens a little in colour, stirring regularly so that it does not catch on the bottom of the pan.
3. Add the tamarind paste and sugar and stir well and then add the vegetable stock. Increase the heat under the saucepan and bring the mixture up to the boil. Then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 10- 15 minutes, uncovered.
4. Add the prawns and pineapple and simmer for a further 5-7 minutes until the prawns are just cooked.
5. Serve in bowls with noodles and wedge of lemon and a little of the sliced chilli and fresh coriander scattered over the top.

Serves 4-6.